The EcoLeviathan and an Abundant State of Nature

Response to Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (1651)


In Leviathan Thomas Hobbes explains the need for a Leviathan, or a coercive power of the general will of the people of a society. He argues that prior to a social covenant people exist in a state of nature in which peoples' "naturall passions" lead them to war with one another. He explains that there are three primary reasons for quarrel and invasion between individuals and groups of people in a state of nature: competition, or invasion for a greater gain of a common good; desire, or invasion to obtain a rivalrous good; and glory, or invasion to obtain reputation and status[1]. The creation of a Leviathan, however, creates a peace among the people of a society which is a necessary prerequisite for all the goods of civilization such as art, industry, navigation and trade, technologies, and literature. "In such a condition [the state of nature] there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain.... Warre," he explains, "is necessarily consequent to the naturall passions of men, when there is no visible power to keep them in awe, and tye them by feare of punishment to the performance of their covenants." Hobbes believes that a Soveriegn Power, legitimized by the multitudes of people in society and wielded by an assembly or individual, must be created to ensure a peace at home by "Feare of Death," or terror, and to ensure "mutuall ayd against enemies abroad." Hobbes' argument is fundamentally based on a basic assumption that there is an inherent scarcity in the state of nature that drives people to quarrel and war with each other over goods. For a full understanding of the "naturall passions" of people we must also consider the possibility of an abundant state of nature in which competition over scarce goods is not necessary.

In an abundant state of nature where all goods are held in common and there is "enough, and as good, left in common for others" there is no need for war, quarrel or invasion (Locke, 2nd Treatise SS33, 1690). Surely scarcity exists in the state of nature and also in a common-wealth but abundance also exists in the state of nature and common-wealth. In an abundant state of nature competition over goods does not occur and peace is the norm. This abundance, however, requires that our natural resource base and commons in general, from which the goods of civilization are produced, are not depleted and are alternatively, replenished and improved. An abundant state of nature is adjudicated by a natural contract that determines the limits and conditions of human interaction with our natural environment. The natural contract is and will always be prior to a social covenant. Hobbes, however, disregards the natural contract in a state of nature and immediately leaps to establishing a social covenant. Consider a range of hills over which several herders graze their sheep. There exists a natural contract between the herder, sheep and hills that determines the amount of sheep that can occupy the hills before their fodder becomes exhausted. This natural contract adjucates between the herders, sheep and hills before a social covenant is required to manage the hills. The ultimate coercive power is the general will of nature and it is to this original EcoLeviathan that people must first answer to.

The coercive power over people that Hobbes finds necessary is justified only as a last resort to keep the peace because a social Leviathan inhibits people's natural liberties. To avoid the necessary evil of the Leviathan people must cooperate to replenish and improve the commons so as to only answer to the EcoLeviathan or they will surely be led to "rob and spoil" one another and risk their liberty. Rivalrous goods are by definition not "enough and as good left in common" and appear to necessitate a social covenant at risk of stealing and pillage. The formation of a social Leviathan or Soveriegn Power is a supreme danger because its efficacy in adjudication is based on its "legitimate" use of violence to persuade individuals to submit to a general will. This sovereign power over society and life is often misused to further the individual wills or agendas of those who wield this power rather than the general will of society, which is itself a concept that is impossible to ascertain. Therefore, it is in the interest of those who wish to retain their liberties to remove the need for rivalrous goods in their lives. Gasoline is a rivalrous good, it would do most people well to remove this need from their lives and instead use a bicycle for transportation. Bicycles, unlike gasoline, can be made abundant through cooperation. Sopo Bicycle Cooperative in Atlanta coordinates people to repair and build free and discarded bicycles and is a good example of how bicycles can be made abundant. However, we live in a society full of rivalrous goods and it is unlikely for all rivalrous goods to be removed from society even if this is an objective of every individual in society. Thus, the Leviathan must be contrived.

As has been explained the formation of the Leviathan is a supreme danger to the liberties of people in a society and therefore, for society in general. While it may be the aim of a society to resort only to the EcoLeviathan, or natural contract, to adjucate their affairs it may currently be necessary to contrive a social Leviathan. There are two reasons for this. One, rivalrous goods must be managed and distributed justly amongst people. Two, a society that endeavors to adjucate its affairs by natural contract is still at risk of invasion from a society whose norms, prejudices, productive infrastructure and legal systems are based on scarcity in a state of nature. There are several ways in which a social Leviathan might form and Hobbes describes four ways that this might occur. He argues that a sovereign power can be wielded in the hands of an individual, as in a monarchy, or in the hands of an assembly, as in a kleptocratic democracy, oligarchy or military junta. He goes on to describe how this power is acquired and writes, "The attaining to this Soveraigne Power, is by two wayes... by Naturall force... as being able to destroy [his subjects] if they refuse... or by warre." The acquisition of a sovereign power in such a manner is always illegitimate and can never bring peace because its formation is, by nature, an act of pre-emptive war. Alternatively, a sovereign power legitimized by the general will of the people can be instituted when people voluntarily submit themselves and renounce their liberties to some form of individual governance, such as a dictatorship, or of some assembly for of governance, such as a republic. However, this alternative and albeit legitimate form of the Leviathan is still problematic because it is based on a hypothetical general will which, as many democracies have experienced, is terribly difficult to ascertain and is often subverted for use by the ruling class. Placing all power in the hands of one person or a small assembly of people to do with "as he shall think expedient" is an issue of information and justice. No one person or group of people can ascertain the general will of the people even if they intended to. The social Leviathan should be designed so that the general will is ascertained at the most direct level so that people have decision making power and are exposed to risk in proportion to how much they are affected by the decision and they generate risk. Therefore, instead of the Leviathan taking the form of a hierarchical coercive sovereign power over the multitudes of people the Leviathan should take the form of a multitudinal power with specifically reserved authority to destroy rivalrous goods through concerted commons-based innovation and abundant productivity and to protect the abundant commons of society by providing for mutual security and subverting eco-sociopathic behavior such as stealing, invasion and pollution. All other quarrels between people would fall to the adjucation of the EcoLeviathan or natural contract between people and the earth. This arrangement provides for the preservation of natural liberties and the preservation of mutual security of both people, the fruit of their labor and the earth.

[1] There are many examples of cultures in which status is asserted in non-violent ways. Potlatching, for example, is a form of status-seeking not bent on, "envy and hatred, and finally warre" but on sharing more than ones fair share of resources with other people. Hobbes comes from a particularly violent western culture and violent status-seeking is not a "naturall passion" of all human cultures.